UQ alumnus in Business Management Bradley and town planner Nicholas will both graduate from the University’s ilab accelerator program in July 2019. The program, part of UQ Ventures, provides $20,000 in funding to help startups fast track their startups from ideas to market-ready enterprises.
The social enterprise provides electric light and mobile phone charging to people in remote communities.
PowerWells won the Get Started category at the Startup Weekend and set an ambitious goal of delivering the product to a remote Indonesian community within the fortnight.
Bradley and Nicholas answer some questions on how PowerWells works, and what they hope to achieve.
How did you get the idea for PowerWells?
The idea to upcycle old batteries came to us at the Startup Weekend, held at Substation 33 in Logan, Queensland.
We had the opportunity to chat with someone from a remote community in Indonesia about how difficult it was to charge a phone and the impact of having a charged phone – both economically and educationally.
With our experience recycling electronic waste and building solar powered energy systems, we hacked together a prototype over one weekend.
The following week we finalised a design and, within nine days, we raised enough money from not-for-profit YFS and flew to Jakarta.
We had five days to build and install a PowerWell in a remote village without access to electricity.
We sourced the required electronic waste from secondhand junk shops, built a PowerWell in our hotel room, and drove 10 hours until we came across a village without any power.
For us, this experience validated our idea that there are many remote communities that would benefit from this kind of service.
Why are PowerWells important?
More than one billion people lack access to electricity. Our solution is to use the growing resource of electronic waste to change this.
In Australia, only two per cent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. Instead of allowing these batteries to go into landfill, our mission is to provide basic power to people living without electricity.
To do this, we're providing small solar systems to a leader in the community who manages the system and provides charging for multiple households. The households then pay off the system in micropayments.
Thousands of remote communities across Papua New Guinea, Papua, West Papua, the rest of Indonesia and Pacific Island countries do not have a reliable source of electricity.
It is common for these people to travel many hours to charge mobile phones and spend large portions of their incomes on kerosene, small batteries and candles.
We are currently rolling out the first 100 systems to people living in remote Indonesian communities.
Each system will last in excess of five years in the field, and PowerWells is committed to recovering all of the systems at the end of their usable life.
One of the main impacts of each system is that it replaces six or more kerosene lamps, which are a large ongoing cost to the households, have terrible impacts on people’s respiratory health and contribute to air pollution.
Is PowerWells your first startup?
No. Bradley’s startup, AMPLFY, is up and running.
In partnership with Substation33 and Traction, AMPLFY teaches disengaged school kids to build portable speakers made from recycled electronics and encased in ex-military surplus ammunition cases. They sell both kits and pre-assembled speakers.
Nicholas also founded a small startup that used tiny houses to address homelessness. This project is on hold.
What components do you need to build PowerWells?
A PowerWell is constructed using old solar panels, recycled laptop batteries, and enclosed in recycled paint buckets.
The system has eight USB output ports, and a 12-volt DC output to charge and power small DC appliances, like laptops.
PowerWells can generate enough electricity to power 50 small devices each day. Each PowerWell also has a large light that can light up a medium sized living space for five hours each night.
In partnership with Substation33, PowerWells has developed a smart battery management system built specifically for recycled batteries, which has been refined over the past five years in different applications. The batteries are recharged using solar panels.
One of the designs is a Bamboo Light/PowerBank, made from mostly recycled materials including Coke Bottles, Coke Cans and LEDs from old TVs.
The Green School: school of the future and R.O.L.E (Rivers, Oceans, Lands, Ecology) Foundation in Bali, have started building these lights as an opportunity to recycle and educate at the same time.
Is most of your funding crowdfunded?
Yes, with some sponsorship and grants.
After the success of our first trip to Indonesia in 2018, we gained some media attention and launched our crowdfunding campaign on StartSomeGood with the goal of raising enough money to build 100 units, which we did.
PowerWells also received the Jetstar Flying Start Grant, which provides funding for flights and project delivery.
How do you see communities using PowerWells?
We are introducing Pay As You Go to the systems and intend to set up a permanent local business function where the owner of a PowerWells system makes money by selling cheap electricity to their community, and then electronically sends a small portion of that revenue to us to slowly pay off the system.
Replacing kerosene with electric light removes the negative health impacts of kerosene; saves a substantial amount of money, freeing it up for other uses; and extends the productive hours of the day for educational and economic activities.
Charging mobile phones onsite reduces the time and money spent on charging phones; further unlocks all the educational and economic activities that phones enable; and increases communication, especially in emergencies.
What’s your vision for PowerWells?
We strive to provide basic electricity in a responsible way, to a large portion of the world who currently live without it.
We aim to significantly improve the processing of electronic waste and wherever possible, use materials recovered from electronic waste recycling.
Track Bradley and Nicholas's progress @PowerWellsOrg.